Saturday, August 30, 2008

Good to Great by Jim Collins

After seeing many Facebook users list in their ‘profile’ the book Good to Great in answer to the question, “Which books have influenced and enriched your life?” I was intrigued to read this book and discover the secrets of its inspiration.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t is a compelling read because the author, Jim Collins exemplifies the type of leader that characterizes great companies. This book is not the work of one man but the product of a diverse team whose contributed is generously applauded and acknowledged by the inspiring author.

The book is as much about leadership as it is about the culture of an organization but the depth of the material is typified by the refusal to state leadership as the answer to all organizational ills but to define the particular style of leadership that results in corporate effectiveness.

Good to Great represents a five-year project in which the researchers explored the question, “Can a good company become a great company [these terms are defined], and, if so, how?” The work involved identifying companies that made the leap from good results to great results that were sustained over a fifteen year period. Importantly, this project did not begin with a theory to prove but the concepts were developed by making empirical deductions directly from the data.

The book would be enhanced if the research teams had examined and told stories of companies that were not based in the USA, even though the book contends that the principles can be applied to any organization in any country. To examine companies in other countries (might have posed difficult research challenges) but it would have provided a richer international dimension and perspective. A wider cultural range would have added to the appeal of the book and broadened the readership.

The result is the synthesis of a huge body of material that is boiled down into several findings such as this one: “Greatness…is largely a matter of conscious choice.” Each chapter is devoted to examining a different common denominator of great companies. The sections are well-organized, with themes supported by ample footnotes, several appendices and a comprehensive index. The chapters contain useful diagrams and graphs, key statements are highlighted in boxes and they all conclude with a succinct summary.

Each chapter interestingly includes a segment of surprises resulting from the unexpected findings of the research team. For example they discovered that “technology and technology-driven change has virtually nothing to do with igniting a transformation from good to great.”

The way the researchers presented and honed their findings is significant and an example to commend. They did not work only in solitude for they engaged in weekly meetings in which they discussed the stories and debated the salient principles. Their style has important ramifications for the reading as well as the research of this book. Good to Great would be strengthened by including questions that would help and encourage readers to engage in the corporate study of this book including the discussion of how the principles might inform their own organizational practice. [Further exploration has led to finding a discussion guide at this link]

This is a book to be studied and discussed by leaders, workers and board members of organizations that desire to move from being ‘OK’ or ‘good’ to companies of significance and high influence.

Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins Books, 2001)

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 110.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Good to Great.

More information about Jim Collins and his work of research, writing and teaching is available from this web site:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Desert Children by Waris Dirie

Desert Children is the third ‘Desert’ book by Waris Dirie, the former fashion model, face of Revlon and UN ambassador for women’s rights. Having told her autobiography in Desert Flower and recorded her return to Somalia in Desert Dawn, this book, Desert Children, extends the focus from Dirie as a person to the challenge of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Europe.

Dirie has written this book in collaboration with Corinna Milborn, a political scientist, Austrian journalist and specialist in human rights issues. They tell how a team of journalists set out to investigate the problem of female genital mutilation and came up with solutions to abolish this practice in Europe.

The book commences with a painful story which becomes the catalyst for the author’s ‘third life’ as a social activist. The pain continues throughout the book as Waris and her team interview women in Europe who have been the subject of genital mutilation. One of the startling revelations of this book is its claim that at least 150 million women and girls worldwide are victims of circumcision, that 500,000 girls and children are affected in Europe alone and that this problem is on the rise.

This is an ideal first book to read about the subject and it takes the form of a journey as Dirie explores the extent of the problem and considers how she and her team will tackle the issue. The book is clear and readable in literary style but its portrayal of deep pain, which is never done gratuitously, makes Desert Children a stomach-turner and a difficult read.

The book is informative without getting bogged down with statistics and unnecessary detail. The author explains the different degrees of mutilation and the reasons why they are carried out. Dirie helps readers to understand the damage that is done by using insensitive labels and she explains the importance of using the right terminology. For instance the author explains why many victims object to the term ‘circumcision’, preferring to use the word ‘mutilation’. The diversity of views is evident in the way some campaigners opt for the expression ‘sexual mutilation’, believing that this practice destroys a woman’s sexuality, not just her genitals. Several appendices at the end of the book are offered to enable readers to understand technical terms and to provide links for those who wish to follow through on services and resources that originate from or exist in different European countries.

As Dirie and her team travel throughout Europe their interviews contribute to a greater understanding of the issue and the different ways that female genital mutilation is understood, practiced and responded to. In a storytelling style, Dirie relays her encounters with medical practitioners, many of whom assist parents to get their daughter ‘cut’ and a much smaller number who are helping victims in the work of physical repair, surgical reconstruction and psychological counseling. Talking to medicos, lawyers, politicians, activists and religious teachers, Dirie presents the many facets surrounding this issue.

Sometimes there are sound bytes and sentences in the book that seem in contradiction to Dirie’s findings. For instance, in making her bold conclusion that female genital mutilation is violence against women and a breach of human rights she says: ‘FGM is not a question of culture. FGM is a question of torture.” (p11) A variation of this statement appears more forcefully on Dirie’s web site: “Female Genital Mutilation has nothing to do with culture, tradition or religion. It is a torture and a crime which needs to be fought against.” Dirie, however, devotes chapters to the power of cultural norms which become even stronger in the migrant community in Europe. She catalogs the women and men carrying out customs that they believe are sanctioned by scriptures and religious leaders, who are “utterly convinced that they are doing the right thing” for their daughters. Furthermore, Dirie’s quest to understand the Islamic teaching on circumcision, virginity, the human body and sexual pleasure is motivated by her desire to examine religion’s reinforcing power and her belief that “genital mutilation would disappear overnight if the leaders of the world’s religions were to say, ‘Mutilation is contrary to the ethical principles of our religious community. Stop doing it.’” (p168)

As the book chronicles an exhausting journey of fact finding and discovery, one senses great emotion—anger at the prevalence of this oppressive practice in Europe, frustration at the power of culture and ritual, and deep grief as stories are voiced for the first time over the silencing power of taboos. Waris Dirie demonstrates immense courage as she spends six months throughout Europe, hearing stories, watching movies and viewing medical photographs that every day tears open her own wounds. While considering the different sides and the complexity of this torture Desert Children is positive, hopeful and a stirring call to action.

The author quotes Salman Rushdie’s wisdom which he wrote in The Ground Beneath Her Feet: “You will not see the whole picture unless you step out of the frame.” (p210) This is easier said than done. Dirie cannot divorce completely the issue of female genital mutilation from her own story but she strives to step out of the frame and see the picture objectively. She does this by her patient listening, her recognition that each person has their own story, her persistent asking of the hard questions and the methodical way that she formulates a strategy in which others can participate.

Dirie’s analysis of the problem of female genital mutilation demonstrates how this is not a woman’s issue but a human concern. This book, therefore, should be compulsory reading for men as well as women-lawyers, doctors, ministers of religion, politicians and lawmakers and ordinary human beings, regardless of their occupation, race, religion and creed-all people who share this planet and are wanting to make a difference.

Waris Dirie with Corinna Milborn, Desert Children (London: Virago Press, 2005).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 49.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Desert Children.

More information about Waris Dirie and her work is available from this web site:

Waris Dirie Foundation

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes’ book begins with this intriguing sentence: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” This opening is the high point of the book and it is all down hill from there. Nothing to be Frightened of is a mongrel, a bitzer. It is a ragbag of reminiscences, memoirs and Barnes family folklore. It also incorporates a deeper discussion on death.

The author himself is unsure of the genre for after thirty pages he says to his readers: “This is not, by the way, ‘my autobiography’. But with this book Barnes has blown his chances of writing a standard autobiography. Written in the first person, Barnes recalls his childhood with the wheelbarrow races and evenings when the family tuned into the wireless to savour the dulcet tones of John Gielgud.

This book tracks the author’s University studies and alludes several times to his ventures in France. Nothing to be Frightened of is about Barnes’ developing ideas about religion and faith. The scope of the book stretches from his breast-fed babyhood to his new status as a sixty-year old and readers are given glimpses into the writer’s club that Barnes attends and such details as the author’s deafness and his swelling prostate. Even if Barnes writes an autobiography it will take readers of this book much convincing that they want to read another version of his life story.

Julian Barnes is the self-appointed family archivist and the book reads like an emptying of the drawers of his desk as he picks his way through family certificates, passports, notebooks, scrapbooks, telegrams and allows them to speak. The book is rich in family memories, many of which are interesting and quaint. The author is struck by how family members have a different take on the same events. He does not ‘gild the lily’ or ‘colour in the memories’. On the contrary, Barnes is forthright about the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of his family, including his own and he specializes in shocking readers with references to ‘unmentionables’ such as his revelations of masturbation.

The focus of this book is death and this is the subject about which “there is “nothing to be frightened of” (Barnes’ quote from his diary when in his forties). This book discusses the fear of death, the experience of touching the dead, the relationship between faith and the approach to death, the art of dying (including the best and worst-case scenarios), the moment of death, the stages of grief and the afterlife.

Barnes seems to be taking Montaigne’s line that “since we cannot defeat death, the best form of counter attack is to have it constantly in mind.” Sometimes he appears to be ‘pit-gazing’ but he strives for a middle ground between constantly brooding over death and the complete avoidance of this certain event. His discussion of thanatology includes many references to what others have said about death, especially Renard, Montaigne and Flaubert but also some recent writers such as Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross.

The author ventures into areas of faith, belief, religion and that which he misses about God. Of special interest is the author’s discussion of religious art and the value that is found in religious art by those not possessing a faith in God.

Julian Barnes appears diffident about his excursion into this territory and feels the need to give his readers this information and self-defence:

“Perhaps I should warn you (especially if you are a philosopher, theologians or biologist) that some of this book will strike you as amateur, do-it-yourself stuff. But then we are all amateurs in and of our own lives.”

Furthermore, after covering some issues of theory and abstract thought Barnes breaks into a chatty and almost condescending tone with such lines as, “Still hanging in there, I hope.”

As a student Barnes kept a box of green index cards, on which he copied pithy sayings, quotations and pieces of wisdom. With this book the author appears to be going through his greatly enlarged box, sorting them into rough themes and writing out the wisdom. In attaining the three-quarter mark in his life Barnes is giving full expression to his entry into these “advice-giving years”.

Nothing to be Frightened of has no chapters but each time Barnes takes a fresh card and changes tack, this is indicated with a line. This emptying of the box in what he calls his “lolloping style” is an unsatisfying ramble.

Barnes alludes to the way Rachmaninov cured his fear of death by eating pistachio nuts. Nothing to be Frightened of is like picking through a bowl of pistachios. There are bits of tasty, nourishing nuts to be had and Barnes is at his best with his humorous stories, perceptive detail and clever wit. But readers must work hard to find the nuts and the frustrating pile of shells leaves you wondering whether it was worth the effort.

The author explains his return to the study of literature at Oxford after a brief foray into philosophy:

“I returned to literature, which did, and still does, tell us best what the world consists of. It can also tell us how best to live in that world, though it does so most effectively when appearing not to do so.” (p151)

Readers of this book will agreed that Barnes is also at his best when writing literature.

Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened of (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh128.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Nothing to be Frightened of.

Related Review:
Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes RBM

Monday, August 11, 2008

Children’s Books in Arabic

Isobel Abul Houl, publisher for Jeroboam Books that publishes children's books in both English and Arabic, says: "There's a lack of good children's books in terms of illustration, quality and imagination, so the majority of children's books in Arabic are often translated or they're poor quality."

Isobel feels that there's "a belief that books should be cheap but parents will happily pay Dh42 for a children's book in English, but won't pay this for the Arabic equivalent, because it's perceived as too expensive. Why should it cost less money because it's in Arabic?"

To read more about the paucity of good quality books in Arabic for children click on this link to the Gulf News article, Children’s Books in Arabic are a Sad Tale, 21 June 2008.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Children’s books. Photo (which accompanies the article) courtesy of Alice Johnson, Gulf News, who also wrote the story.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

This book consists of 500 pages and it is the first part of a trilogy entitled ‘The Cairo Trilogy’. Modern day publishers would send back such a manuscript to the author saying, ‘Has promise but cut it back to 200 pages and then give me another look’. But this tome was published in 1956 in Arabic and it has only recently been available to an English readership.

Don’t be too quick to knock this book off your ‘Books I’d Like for my Birthday’ list because the Egyptian author, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988) for contributions like this. Arab leaders today are bemoaning the lack of books in Arabic and Mahfouz has done much to popularize Arab literature throughout the world.

The style of Palace Walk belongs to a former era and it has been compared to the works of Tolstoy, Proust, Flaubert and Dickens and other authors to whom Mahfouz was indebted. The comparison goes further than the length of the books and includes the intricate detail, the character portraits and the lingering pace.

The story of Palace Walk concerns the nation of Egypt under British occupation following the First World War but the focus is sharpened and the issues heightened as Mahfouz centres on the twists and turns in the daily journey of one Egyptian family.

While some events and experiences relate exclusively to the earlier time and the circumstances of Cairo the book contains important insights into everyday Arab culture and thinking in different places and circumstances.

Michael Palin’s assessment of Yemen as ‘a nation of secrets’ has implications for much of modern day Arab culture that happens behind walls and veils. Mahfouz reveals to his readers detailed insights into family dynamics (through the eyes of children and parents), patriarchal pressures, the conflicts between Islam observance and ethical dilemmas in modern life, the way sexual temptation is rationalized and the influence of the jinn (evil spirits).

This book offers a slow lingering walk with an author who possesses wisdom, humor and sensitivity.

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (London: Black Swan, originally published in English in 1990 but this edition 1994).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 60.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Palace Walk.